Easy Money, Sponsoring Terrorism, and Preventing Democracy
The moral bankruptcy of the Saudi Arabian regime should be a surprise to nobody. The House of Saud has exploited its vast oil wealth largely for its own benefit and for projects that do little to assist the lives of its own citizens. Extravagant palaces, automobiles, a life of luxury; these are but three aspects of being a part of the governing class of that country.
Contrast this high life with the plight of the country's citizens, many of whom are uneducated, illiterate, and living in relative poverty. One in five Saudis over the age of 15 cannot read or write. The literacy rate for women is particularly sad to note; at just under 71%, this figure is 14% lower than the male literacy rate. The country may have one of the highest GDP-per-capita rates in the Middle East ($12,500), which is well over the threshold for what many analysts believe should be sufficient to support an enduring democratic system, but the state remains fundamentally non- and anti-democratic. There are no political parties, there is no political representation, and suffrage extends only to males over the age of 21. A fantastic summary of the regime's view on economic and political participation within the state is as follows: "We don't ask much of you economically and we don't give much to you politically."
Human rights abuses are prevalent: arbitrary arrest, prolonged detention, and physical abuse of prisoners, including torture, are three major failures of the Saudi justice system. Because the rule of law does not exist, these abuses largely occur with the acquiescence, if not outright support of, the regime, which also regularly cracks down of freedoms of expression, association, and religion. To apply Natan Sharansky's "town square test," if a young woman were to walk into the middle of Riyadh's town square and make a political statement, she would likely be imprisoned and subjected to much abuse from agents of the state.
Moreover, the Saudi regime engages in state sponsorship of terrorism to an extent that some analysts have argued they deserve their own place in the axis of evil. Even before 9/11, actions such as the following should have raised alarm bells:
"The Saudi government has been the principal financial backer of Afghanistan' s odious Taliban movement since at least 1996. It has also channeled funds to Hamas and other groups that have committed terrorist acts in Israel and other portions of the Middle East.
Worst of all, the Saudi monarchy has funded dubious schools and "charities" throughout the Islamic world. Those organizations have been hotbeds of anti-Western, and especially, anti-American, indoctrination. The schools, for example, not only indoctrinate students in a virulent and extreme form of Islam, but also teach them to hate secular Western values." (Ted Galen Carpenter, "Terrorist Sponsors: Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, China")
Given the Bush Administration's stance on terrorists and the regimes that harbour them, it is a glaring inconsistency that America continues to rely on this corrupt and anti-democratic regime in the name of "stability." In my thesis I argue forcibly that espousing democracy promotion and supporting illiberal authoritarians such as the House of Saud are incompatible policies. You should be able to guess with little difficulty which of these two options I feel is the one that has to go (hint: keep supporting democracy!), and I reiterate here the need to close the gap between the rhetoric and the reality. Discard the Saudis. Criticize them for their horrific human rights record. Demand that they open up political participation to all citizens and make that participation legitimate and meaningful.
There is absolutely no reason to believe that, given the opportunity, Saudi Arabia could reform itself into a liberal democracy. It has a strong middle class and a young population that can be mobilized to support greater freedoms. The median age in the country is 21; they are young, vibrant, and many are desirous to work hard to earn their keep (again, a stark contrast to the regime). It is generally assumed that once GDP-per-capita hits $6000, democracy becomes enduring once introduced. Saudi Arabia has double that number, and is being held back by a decrepit autocracy that exploits the country's oil wealth for the maximization of its own power instead of creating people power. They realize that to do the latter would result in a limitation of their authority and monopoly on the ability to control. This is all the more reason for democracies to stand up and speak out against the House of Saud. They have not earned their legitimacy, they have bought it with the oil wealth of the Saudi people; seeing the West grovel and make concessions to this despotism because we need access to their oil sickens me. It is well past time to stop supporting this regime and start supporting its people to acquire their liberation.